'Manager of Managers': Rise of Distributed Devices Drives Call for Network Management Solutions

Are utilities keeping up with the proliferation of distributed devices?
Feb 18, 2020 9:00 AM ET

Millions of devices are measuring and sometimes controlling the health of our utility networks, and millions more are coming. As distributed resources drive rapid, increasing demand for data-intensive grid management to ensure high-quality, reliable and resilient power delivery, ask yourself this question: How are you keeping up?

Led by a utility’s approach to network management, the path from convention to optimization will be critical to our grid’s digital transformation. Data from the 2020 Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report survey finds that utilities are gaining a deeper understanding of data’s potential to reshape how they find anomalies, perform asset management and use analytics to make smarter planning and operational decisions.

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It’s clear that holistic network management strategies will give utilities the best chance to truly understand and act on the stories their data is trying to tell them. Two key trends found in the report demonstrate the need: Devices on utility systems are proliferating at a high rate, and utilities are actively planning the deployment of 24/7 network operations centers (NOCs) and security operations centers (SOCs) meant to ensure protection and rapid response to issues affecting grid performance. 

The Rise of Data

From substation automation, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distribution management systems (DMS) to field- level automation, survey respondents told us they are planning device additions in their bid to glean more information from their networks, with substation automation and AMI devices leading the way.

Nearly one-third of respondents indicated they have migrated from synchronous, time-division multiplexing to packet-based internet protocol (IP) to improve data transmission efficiency and flexibility.\

Network Operations Centers on the Front Line

But data collection eventually must lead to data management. Leading utilities have started developing integrated network management systems (INMS) to act as a “manager of managers” that deliver aerial-like views of all the devices and services being delivered by the network. Security controls and monitoring, provisioning, network surveillance and ongoing performance measuring are key benefits of this holistic approach.

Typically, an INMS is housed in a network operation center, which is becoming a 24/7 tactic of choice for utilities to manage all this information and address the frequently inopportune timing of system failures (Figure 17). Often, NOCs are integrated with element management systems (EMS).

Security Concerns

High-profile hacking episodes only underscore the need for strategic network management solutions. The geographically distributed nature of device-related upgrade projects, along with the sheer volume of devices going on the network, increases the opportunity for cybersecurity breaches and, thus, the challenge utilities face to meet them.

Closing the Gaps

The era of digitalized utility networks has arrived, with the grid moving massive amounts of power and information at high speeds. Pressure from customers for maximum uptime and resilient power are pushing utilities to modernize

their systems. Network intelligence strategies involving AMI, distribution automation (DA), substation automation and other technologies offer great potential for insights about system state, asset health, customer habits and potential cyber anomalies.

But foregoing a comprehensive network management plan carries risk. Staffing and budget constraints frequently compete with customer demand, meaning in-house solutions often can outpace staff skill sets and resources. Can your team manage these new and larger data flows? And is it ready for the inevitable risk of opening new points of entries for bad actors on your network?

Answers to those questions start with how these systems can be managed to understand the performance and security gaps, and close them before they threaten the customer relationship.